by Tony Flood

The King and I made its stage debut 72 years ago, but this timeless Rodgers and Hammerstein classic remains one of the best ever musicals and deservedly received a standing ovation after the first night at the Congress Theatre on Wednesday.
It is based on the true story of widow Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher hired by the King of Siam in the 1860s to educate his many children and wives.
There is a clash of cultures and personalities as the strong-willed Anna is confronted by the equally wilful king. They come to respect and admire each other in a mesmerizing relationship, although still exchange witty retorts.
Maria Coyne, who shares the role of Anna with Helen George, and Darren Lee, as the king, both excel. She is fiery, yet warm, while he is sharp but vulnerable.
Although they don’t quite capture the chemistry shown by Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in the 1956 film, Maria and Darren have the audience spell-bound with the show-stopping Shall We Dance.
Superb vocals and choreography are enhanced by the shrewd direction of Tony Award-winner Bartlett Sher, but the three-hour run time is excessive. It would have benefited if The Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet had been cut by a few minutes.
Some people may not like the misogyny in a land where women are given as presents and slave girl Tuptim (Marienella Phillips) faces severe punishment for having a secret lover. But this is an essential part of the story revealing the difficulties facing Anna and her young son Louis, a role shared by Josh Bortoloso, Fin Goodman, Louis Levy and Charlie McGuire.
Cezarah Bonner is perfectly cast as caring wife Lady Thiang, who treats us to a stunning rendition of Something Wonderful. Her young children are adorable and excellent support is given by Caleb Lagayan, as her eldest son, Sam Jenkins-Shaw, Dean John-Wilson and Kok-Hwalie.